Sunday 24 March 2019

Film Review - Paul Whitington: How I Live Now

Horrors of love in wartime

Saoirse Ronan in a scene from How I Live Now with George McKay
Saoirse Ronan in a scene from How I Live Now with George McKay
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Kevin Macdonald is a fine director who oscillates between painstaking documentaries like Marley and Touching the Void and drama features that don't always come off.

He tends to do better when he works on a small scale, and How I Live Now was shot on in north Wales on a very tight budget and for me is the best thing he's done since The Last King of Scotland.

It's based on a novel by Meg Rosoff and is a kind of love story, I suppose, though set against the grimmest of backdrops.

Saoirse Ronan, looking hard in punkish clothes and peroxide hair, is Daisy, a sullen New York teenager who's not impressed when she comes to England to visit her rural cousins.

Daisy is chippy to the point of unpleasantness and tends to find fault with everyone and everything, but she also hears voices in her head that tell her how awful she is, and may not be entirely well.

She's curt and sour when her young cousin Issac (Tom Holland) meets her at Heathrow and whisks her into the country in a Land Rover, and horrified by the bohemian squalor that confronts her when she gets to their rambling country home. Issac's chaotically happy family only make Daisy feel her isolation all the more keenly, but there may be more pressing things to worry about.

In the airport there were soldiers everywhere, and armed checkpoints punctuated their route home. George's mother, Penn (Anna Chancellor) seems to be some kind of politician, and Daisy hears her on the phone in the wee small hours trying to avert a dangerous stand-off with a neighbouring country.

The next day Aunt Penn takes off on urgent business, and Daisy is left to cope alone with Issac, his chatty younger sister Piper (Harley Bird), and taciturn elder brother Eddie (George McKay). At first she resists their attempts to include her in picnics and games, but eventually her defences weaken and she begins to warm to her happy-go-lucky English cousins.

She also falls in love with Eddie, but then one day there's a flash in the sky to the south, everything goes silent and clumps of ash begin to fall like snow. London has been hit by an atom bomb, and Daisy and her cousins are plunged into an extended nightmare.

Some English critics seem to have a problem with the fact that How I Live Now is both a teenage love story and a dystopian horror film, but I must say I don't.

Using minimal effects and shooting outdoors as much as possible, Kevin Macdonald tells his story with admirable efficiency and a kind of spare beauty. The bucolic bliss of the early scenes is made all the more poignant by what follows, and the moment the bomb detonates is brilliantly handled.

And while Daisy is perhaps a more rounded character than any of the others, Saoirse Ronan is excellent as a young girl who discovers true love at precisely the wrong moment.

Director: Kevin Macdonald. Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, Anne Chancellor, George McKay. (15A, general release, 101 minutes)

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